The truth about being a female leader and the importance of boundaries
By Natasha Wallace
I spent most of my career feeling non-gender specific. What I mean is that I didn’t feel like a woman. I just felt like a worker. Up until my late 20s I worked in environments where there were plenty of men and women and then for the whole of my 30s, I worked in a male dominated environment. I was one of only two senior women, but it didn’t make any difference. I simply didn’t think about gender and I enjoyed working with men.
I actually prided myself on my ability to ‘fit in’ with men. I’d get involved in the banter, would make sure that my home life didn’t impinge on my work life, and was always comfortable in Board meetings surrounded by men. If they didn’t agree with me, I just argued harder.
I had my first child when I was 31 and came back to work after three months, I was keen to get back. My partner stayed at home with the baby for a few months and I cracked on with pursuing my career. I can remember one of my team saying to me after a couple of years of me being a mum that she thought I was amazing. It was because it didn't seem as though I had a child at home, I was always on top form at work. Being a mother wasn’t impacting on my ability to perform. It gave me a real boost. I was clearly nailing it. I saw it as a badge of honour.
I went through the next few years working hard, depending heavily on childcare. I went through two years of severe post-natal depression because my doctor thought I had “gone back to work too early and had too much on my plate”. It didn’t really register that I was compromising my health, even though mentally I felt like I had flat lined. I put on my game face at work, no one noticed what was going on, and I cracked on. It wasn’t until I came out of depression that I told anyone about it. Even at that point I didn’t think it was a big deal. What opening up confirmed was that no one had noticed. Phew, I had got away with it.
I would mainly see the kids at the weekend. It wasn’t always quality time as I was knackered. I can remember crying some weekends at the thought of how I was going to gather the energy to do anything fun with them. My partner worked overseas for half of the year and so I was often flying solo. Feeling exhausted around the kids just became normal.
I didn’t really spend much time socialising and I didn’t make time for friends. I also stopped networking. Any ‘nice to do’ activities were suspended in favour of ‘have to do’ activities, and there were plenty of those. Balancing home and work life was tough (not that I really saw it like that at the time). I would book and miss conferences. Only book training that advanced my technical and professional skills (not my personal skills) and even then, I’d often prioritise internal meetings over development. I’d often cancel external supplier or network meetings and events as I was so focused on the day job. Anything else was an unnecessary distraction. I stopped connecting with the outside world.
After I was on maternity with my second child I read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. It was the first time I’d ever thought about being a woman in work. It talked about women needing to put themselves forward (leaning in) and making themselves known – I already did that. I didn’t think I’d ever really been treated differently because I was a woman. I did start to think more seriously about how women felt at work more generally though.
As an HR Director I had to do something about the imbalance. We had the opportunity to set up a Female Development Programme at the time and I took it, along with the other female leader in the company. We didn’t know how we were going to ‘sell it’ to other women at that stage, it just seemed like the right thing to do. We got some push back to start with as some of the male leaders were worried that there may be a perception that they were discriminating against women. That’s not why we wanted to run the programme. In any environment where there is an imbalance, it can influence the culture of that group. We had very few women at the top of the organisation and we knew we could better support our women and help them to succeed. We wanted to make sure more women were ‘leaning in’. We launched the first programme and I put myself on it too. I had just as much to learn.
Working with this group of women was an eye opener. Women were struggling to know how to be at their best in a male dominated environment. Not because men were treating them badly, but because their wants and needs were different. I can remember crying when we were shown a video of Brene Brown talking about vulnerability. It was the first time that I realised that I didn’t feel I could show any vulnerability. I thought I always needed to be strong.
That was the turning point for me. Being with a group of women, supporting each other, speaking openly about our experiences, and recognising gender difference and what it meant – both from a positive and a negative perspective was liberating. I recognised the impact that a long held focus on equality had had, the gender lines had become blurred. Women were trying to behave more like men and men were worried about how behaved around women. The consequences for me, I felt I couldn’t falter. I had created such high expectations for myself that I was breaking under my own strain.
This is when I realised that my needs weren’t being met. That I had compromised by personal life and who I was as a person, to fit in at work. It wasn’t intentional and I hadn’t even been conscious of it. In one of the workshops I remember saying that I wanted people to see me as a kind and warm person but that I thought they saw me as tough and aloof. To some extent that was true. It wasn’t really who I was, but I’d hardened over the years. My role in HR, having regular tough conversations and as a female leader who was often challenging the status quo, had taken its toll.
I wanted to see my kids more. I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to feel feminine. I wanted to have fun. And I wanted to make a bigger difference in the world. No one had told me to work in the way I had been. That was all on me. I hadn’t set any boundaries and at no point had I made it clear about what my non negotiables were. I let work run my life.
That’s when I changed my life. I left my job (an incredibly tough decision), I reconnected with my children (which required a bit of learning), I met new friends (which meant letting down my barriers), and I built a great network (which took courage). I also worked less hours, did a pile of personal development to reconnect with who I really was, and I started to take better care of myself and my wellbeing. It didn’t happen overnight. It was a journey, and one that I am still on.
I now feel like a woman and I have achieved balance - most of the time. I have softened and I am helping more people, doing a job that I love. I feel like a good mother and have built great relationships with my children. I have an awesome friendship group too, who I need – I’ve dropped the strong independent woman act a bit.
And now, I’m so happy to be working with other women, helping them to develop themselves, to grow their confidence, and to set their own boundaries - not as part of some feminist movement, but because women often lose themselves, in an attempt to fit in and because they are too busy worrying about other people's needs. Seeing women working together, growing and developing together, is incredible. When you get a group of women in a room, all wanting to learn more about themselves and how to be better, it creates an amazing and inspirational energy. This is why Kate and I set up Two Young Birds. Our aim being to create an environment in which women can connect, learn and support each other, and make sure they don't lose connection - with themselves and the outside world.